Oak Park embraces its diversity and business mix to become a destination for Metro Detroit"

This is part of a series led by the Michigan Downtown Association, celebrating 40 years of continuous improvement of Michigan communities and downtowns. Additional support also from the City of Oak Park's Downtown Development Authority.
Erik Tungate says conditions were less than ideal when he took City Manager's job in Oak Park nine years ago.
Erik Tungate, Oak Park City Manager
Before his arrival, 37 employees – 15 of them Public Safety Officers – were laid off, and departments charged with managing Communications and Human Resources were non-existent.

Putting it into context, Tungate says, “In 2012, Oak Park was a city of 30,000 residents, occupying five-square miles and bordered by the city of Detroit, which was just about to go into federal bankruptcy. So, Oak Park was on a similar trajectory coupled with the ongoing fallout from the Great Recession of 2008.  We lost about 47 percent of the city’s taxable revenue.  That’s what Oak Park was contending with.”

These days, the city is home to thriving downtown corridors with a mix of specialty shops, bars, and restaurants, making it a destination for residents and visitors alike.  This vibrancy is what convinced Edward Stencel and his wife, Martha, to locate their brewery in a new mixed-use district on 11 Mile in Oak Park.

The Stencel’s were co-owners of River Rouge Brewing Co., LLC, in Royal Oak, which will be closed by the end of March.  Their new venture is called Unexpected Craft Brewing Company and is expected to open in April.

Shortly after opening River Rouge Brewing, the couple realized that the space they were leasing on Fourth Street was too small. The name of the business was creating confusion because it was not located near River Rouge.

“Our brewhouse and tasting room were only 1,400 square feet,” Edward Stencel says of the Royal Oak location. “The location in Oak Park is just under 8,000 square feet.  We are going to be able to have a larger space for brewing, tasting, and canning.  This new location will enable us to brew and distribute locally and regionally.”

The building, located at 14401 West 11 Mile Road, was purchased by the couple in August 2018 for $411,000.  Stencel says the building began its life in the 1930s as a factory that produced screws and bolts.

Owning instead of leasing will allow “us to have control over our destiny,” he says.

The idea to locate their brewery in Oak Park came about after Stencel met Kimberly Marrone, Oak Park’s Economic Development and Planning Director, and City Planner Kevin Rulkowski at a Winter Beer conference in Kalamazoo.  They made a presentation pitching the benefits of Oak Park.

The city had been “dry” since its establishment in 1945, with a ban on selling alcoholic liquors by the glass. On July 15, 2013, a vote allowed up to 20 restaurants to obtain tavern licenses, but they could not sell spirits or mixed drinks. On May 5, 2015, the citizens of Oak Park voted to allow mixed drinks to be sold at businesses within city limits in addition to beer and wine, which were previously allowed.

Tungate says he had never heard that there was such a thing as a “dry” city until he came to Oak Park.  He made it a priority to get this status removed.  On four separate occasions, he made his case to the city’s voters that this was not a social, religious, or political issue, but rather an economic development issue that could attract new restaurants and bars to bring people into the community.

“Leadership has the responsibility to put things in the proper proportion and context,” Tungate says.  “We had four Town Halls, and I would always say that we’re not going to upend your religious beliefs, but with the proper controls in place, we have the potential to locate 22 new restaurants here over the next 10 years.  This really changed the dynamic and conversation about the whole issue.”

The conversations expanded to include the approval of food trucks doing business in the community, which was a major consideration for Stencel.

“We weren’t able to do food at our brewery in Royal Oak, and the city wouldn’t allow us to have food trucks,” he says.  “Research shows that food trucks help brick and mortar businesses if they have a presence.  People like food trucks which help to create an event-like atmosphere.”
Edward Stencel, co-owner of Unexpected Brewing Company. Photo by Nic Antaya

These mobile eateries have become even more popular since COVID forced the temporary closure of restaurants and indoor dining.  Stencel says he is working on a limited menu for Unexpected Craft Brewing, which will support food trucks.

Location, location, and affordability

The Stencels original plan when looking for a new location was a focus on downriver.  After learning more about Oak Park at the Winter Beer Conference, Stencel told his wife that they should find the property there.

“We liked the location.  There’s not a lot of restaurants or bars around there.  The real estate was affordable, and we liked the neighborhood.  It had everything that we wanted as far as space, and there are a lot of young families here,” he says of what he saw in Oak Park.

Unexpected Craft Brewing is close to another brewery and a restaurant and a coffee shop scheduled to open soon.  He says he expects real estate prices in Oak Park to increase as people begin to realize that “there’s something happening here.”

“I think there’s room for more restaurants and bars,” Stencel says.

However, there has to be a good retail mix to bring people in, and that’s something he didn’t see in Royal Oak which he says has a lot of bars and restaurants, but doesn’t have many unique shops that offer clothing or jewelry.  Stencel says he thinks leasing prices there and the ease and popularity of online shopping have made it difficult for independently-owned businesses to survive and thrive.

But, coffee shops, restaurants, and breweries have the potential to create community, and Stencel says people in Oak Park are excited about that.
Pre-pandemic, Tungate says traffic in the downtown corridor was increasing, and there was a vibrancy that didn’t exist.

Key dates in the growth and vibrancy of downtown Oak Park. Graphic by Kate Tyler

Longtime business owner Brenda Supuwood says the downtown landscape has changed drastically in the 23 years since she opened Universal Stained Glass at 8550 W. Nine Mile Road.  She settled on the location because it’s near her home in Southfield, there was a lot of traffic, it was safe, and at $600 a month, the rent was affordable.
  
Her work is pretty evenly split between custom and restoration stained glass work that she has done for clients, including the Royal Oak Library and residents of the University District, an area encompassing Woodward Avenue and Seven Mile Road near Palmer Woods and Sherwood Forest, which has several historic homes built in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  In addition to stained glass, Supuwood also makes money as a potter.
 
“There aren’t too many people left who do this type of art form anymore,” she says of stained glass.  “It takes years to develop the skills.  Each job is different, and I don’t have very much competition anymore.  Since the 2008 Recession, a lot of shops like mine have closed.”

When she first opened her business in Oak Park, the area was home to mostly barber shops, hair salons, and liquor stores sought out for lottery tickets just as much as booze.
 
“There’s been a tremendous transformation, and it’s still changing,” Supuwood says.  “I never thought that would happen.  We get lots and lots of people from the suburbs now.  It’s becoming artsier, and we’ve got more restaurants opening up.  Across the street, there’s an ACE Hardware store that brings in a lot of traffic.  You wouldn’t think it was the same place.  It’s bringing in people from various areas that we never had before.”

Brenda Supuwood, owner of Universal Stained Glass, sits among her stained glass creations. Photo by Nic Antaya
Complementing the major investments made to bring new businesses in are smaller investments that have created a more aesthetically-pleasing downtown corridor.  Trees and flowers have been planted, sidewalks have been improved, and benches have been installed.  In a nod to signature efforts like the painted cows located on streets in Chicago and the Checker taxi cabs that dot downtown Kalamazoo, Oak Park has planted sunflowers in drab corridors and created Sunflower Corridors.

Time spent working in economic development in places like Brooklyn, N.Y., Chicago, and Los Angeles has taught Tungate that “oftentimes it’s not a very expensive thing to do, but it can be transformational.”

Supuwood says even the smallest improvements have moved Oak Park “up the ladder.”

“I feel like there’s an energy and vibrancy that was not there before,” she says.  “The neighborhoods have changed a lot, and more young people are moving in, and they have extra money to spend on art and eating out.  What’s been done here has brought a lot more people to the area.”

Oak Park’s proximity to Ferndale also is a plus, she says.

“Nine Mile Road runs all the way through Ferndale and Oak Park so people can travel up and down that whole area and shop,” Supuwood says.  “There’s a retired couple who moved to Ferndale three years ago who pass by my shop every morning on their walking route.”

We know our place

The continued success of Oak Park’s downtown corridors will depend on the city’s ability to bring in specialty shops and one-of-a-kind businesses, Tungate says.

“Oak Park is definitely a bedroom community,” he says.  “We don’t have a traditional downtown; we have a corridor improvement authority.  We know our place in the region.  We want to be the community that when you come home from being at your job in downtown Detroit, you can relax and enjoy all of the amenities we have for you.”

This includes a recently planned linear park on Nine Mile Road.  Tungate says he “wanted to get into that game” because it fits well with the city’s corridor-driven economic development standards.

“It’s a legitimate linear park-like the Detroit Riverwalk.  When people come home from work, they can take a leisurely walk through the downtown district,” Tungate says.

Initiatives like this were part of his overall plan to change the previous cultural mindset from “cut your way to prosperity” to “grow your way to prosperity.”  After establishing an economic development foundation that is weaved into much of the city’s work, a 100-acre site used to house a Federal U.S. Armory was re-developed and is now home to a Federal Express facility, headquarters for Forgotten Harvest, and includes a retail component.

Identifying and implementing cost savings and new revenue streams and instituting an economic development strategy are the pillars of Oak Park’s re-birth, Tungate says.

While there is a great amount of pride in Oak Park’s rebirth and what is yet to come, he says he worries about what Detroit will look like post-pandemic because what happens in Detroit is “hugely impactful for us.”

“Up until the last five years, Detroit had been a deterrent in a lot of ways,” Tungate says, adding that Detroit is back on the national scene in a good way.
“I am very optimistic about this and the positive impact it will have on Oak Park and the region.”

 
Q & A with Oak Park's Kimberly Marrone
Q & A with Oak Park's Kimberly Marrone
Opportunities and challenges for Oak Park

What was the downtown district like when you joined the DDA?
 
Oak Park is unique because it does not have a traditional downtown, but instead, it has pockets of commercial areas along a few main corridors.  In 2016 I created a Corridor Improvement Authority, which encompasses 11 Mile Rd, Coolidge, and Nine Mile Road, where our main neighborhood commercial districts are located.  This allowed us to tie these corridors together and create a tool that provided us with the ability to capture the taxing jurisdictions to fund projects through a TIF (Tax Increment Finance) District.  
 

 What have been some of the biggest challenges to getting Oak Park to where it is today?
 
One thing that needs to be clear is that we don’t have a traditional downtown.  We’re working with pockets of commercials districts along three main corridors.  This Nine Mile redesign is a project that we’re doing in phases from the Ferndale border to Southfield, but because of the funding, we have to do it in phases, starting on one end of town and working for several years to get it completed.  In some of our commercial districts, parking is an issue. These areas were built more for a walking community, and we’re trying to create parking with minimal space, which has been somewhat of an issue.
 

What are some things your township is doing to achieve success?
 
We recently completed phase one of our Nine Mile redesign project.  On a portion of Nine Mile Road, we did a road diet to calm traffic, and this allowed us to add bike lanes and additional parking to service these neighborhood commercial districts. We also created two pocket parks to benefit the residents and businesses in that area.  These improvements have helped us to begin to attract new businesses.  We are currently working on Phase 2 of that project to add a linear park over two blocks.  
 
Other projects we are working on are to study and plan for possible road diets and improvements to the Coolidge and 11 Mile corridors to assist in business attraction there.
 
We created our first mixed-use district on 11 Mile Road, which has allowed us to turn an obsolete industrial area of town into an up-and-coming vibrant area. Currently, we are welcoming two new breweries and two restaurants with more to come.
 
 
What kinds of residences work in a downtown area?  What is the right balance?
 
We have both single-family housing and multi-family in our community.  We also recently added two affordable housing projects.  We hope to add mixed-use developments along the corridors and live-work options as well.

 
What is the attraction of the Township for businesses and residents?
 
 
I believe the two biggest attractions in our community are affordability and diversity.  We are one of the most affordable communities with a great housing stock within the metro area.  We also have numerous parks and a great public safety department making it a safe place to live and conduct business.  The community was developed at a time after the war and encouraged all to reside there.  We were the fastest-growing community in the nation in the mid-’40s.  It became a melting pot with many races and ethnicities.  Over time the community has thrived because of its diversity and welcoming attitude.
 

When you want to make big changes, what's the most important thing to know starting?
 
The most important things are to do community engagement and listen to what people want to see.  It is also important to work together with surrounding communities and bring partners to help with the funding, such as MDOT and SEMCOG.
 
 
What’s next for the Township?
 
Phase 2 of our Nine Mile redesign to add a park and art.  Rezoning some districts to allow for mixed-use and planning the future for the Coolidge and 11 Mile Corridors.